Insulation is a key component of both our homes and of the operations of many businesses. Not only can insulation keep homes comfortable, it can also limit the risk of fire and electrical issues in industrial or manufacturing settings.
However, while insulation can help many industries manage risk, it has also created a health risk for insulation workers that handled the material because of the widespread use of asbestos. What should insulators and their families know about this hazardous material?
How was asbestos used in insulation?
Asbestos reduces electrical conductivity and is resistant to fire, heat and corrosion, and many insulation products manufactured in the 20th century commonly contained asbestos as a result. These products include spray and block insulation, corrugated paper products, tapes, pipe covering, felt, adhesives, staples, wire bands, seals and many other products.
Because of its widespread use in insulation products, asbestos products were present in many different workplaces and job sites. Homes and other buildings often used asbestos-containing insulation for temperature control, insulation in electrical systems and in manufacturing facility components like boilers. Asbestos was also present in ships and vehicles.
Why did insulation workers face increased risk of asbestos exposure?
While the United States Environmental Protection Agency began restricting the use of asbestos in insulation in the 1970s — starting with a ban on asbestos use in spray-applied insulation in 1973 — it was still a common material for decades. As a result, workers in a variety of industries handled this material everyday in their work for years as they installed and replaced insulation materials. Often times workers would encounter existing asbestos containing insulation when removing and replacing piping, equipment and structures.
Cutting insulation, opening packages, fastening insulation to surfaces or maintaining structures that used asbestos insulation can all throw these microscopic fibers into the air. Once airborne, workers could easily breathe the fibers into their lungs. These airborne fibers in enclosed spaces that contain the fibers in the space with workers, such as the spaces used by insulation workers.
What is the long-term harm of asbestos exposure?
Once asbestos enters the lungs, it can slowly do long-term harm to the person exposed. Scarring in the lungs leads to difficulty breathing in a condition called asbestosis. Thickening of the membranes in the lungs or fluid buildup can make the lungs less efficient. In addition, asbestos has been linked to a number of cancers, including mesothelioma.
Because of the risk of asbestos exposure, workers who handled insulation that contained asbestos are at increased risk of asbestos-related disease. One study of members of the International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Asbestos Workers in the United States and Canada found that 356 workers died of mesothelioma between 1967 and 1984. A study of Swedish workers found that the risk of cancer attributed to asbestos was around 50 percent, and another found that workers in the insulation industry faced the highest risk of pleural mesothelioma.
Unfortunately, the impact of asbestos exposure may not be immediately apparent for workers. Many people with asbestos-related conditions may not notice symptoms for years, and mesothelioma may develop as long as 60 years after exposure. One study of insulation workers found that lung cancer fatalities most often occurred between 30 and 35 years after asbestos exposure. This means that many may be unaware of the damage done by their work until late in life.
Insulators and their families may want to speak to an experienced attorney as they explore their legal options and seek answers for their questions. While workers struggle with the medical and financial impact of asbestos exposure, compensation may be available to support them during this difficult time.